WW Musical 'Story' A Holiday Must-See

For more than 15 years, a large part of the television viewing public has tuned in to one or more showings in the 24-hour TNT Christmas Eve/Day marathon of “A Christmas Story.”

It is my favorite, never-miss holiday show.

Being a believer in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” theory, I was in no hurry to see “A Christmas Story, The Musical,” a production which premiered in 2009 and toured several major cities before landing on Broadway in 2012.

The musical itself was an outgrowth of the 2000 play based on the 1983 movie. How good, I wondered, could yet a third incarnation be and how have they transferred a film filled with so many memorable moments to the admittedly limited theatrical stage?

A Christmas Carol, The Musical  Wagon Wheel Theatre warsaw INIf this is taking a long time to get to the point, it is to underscore my initial reluctance to check out “A Christmas Story, The Musical” which opened Friday evening at the Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre.

Five minutes into the opening number, I was sold. At the end of the less-than-two-hour production, I was wishing it would begin again.

Under the direction of artistic director/choreographer Scott Michaels, the outstanding cast delivers an evening that brings smiles, laughs and well-deserved cheers throughout. And everything I love about the film is there — and frequently better!

As always, the adult performers are excellent, with WW favorites Matthew Janisse as The Old Man and Kira Lace Hawkins as the understanding Mother. Janisse’s exultation at winning “A Major Award” is frantically hilarious while Hawkins’ description of “What A Mother Does” strikes a solid chord of recognition.

As Jean Shepherd, Hoosier author of the tale and show narrator, Kenneth D’Elia is properly in-and-outside the action as required, and Ellen Jenders as Ralphie’s teacher, Miss Shields, gives a whole new meaning to “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.”

A Christmas Story, The Musical  Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INIn this production, however, it is the younger generation that is absolutely amazing!

In the hands of talented Parker Irwin (6th grade), Ralphie Parker is loveably determined. Bespectacled eyes fixed firmly on the prize (“Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun”), Ralphie dreams of heroic scenarios (“Ralphie To The Rescue”) and methods of achieving his goal (“Up On Santa’s Lap”).

Irwin is not only a strong singer but delivers a solid character, never missing a lyric or a line, honestly portraying all Ralphie’s ups and downs in pursuit of his dream gift.

Beside him is Alek Fehlmann (5th grade) as brother Randy, struggling with mealtime and his restricting winter garb. Their friends Flick (Callen Hoskins, 5th grade) and Schwartz (Caleb Mouat, 6th grade) are as true blue — and as self-protective — as kids that age can be. Nicholas Lowman and Jackson Moeller (both 6th grade) as school bully Scot Farkus and his toady, Grover Dill, respectively, recall everyone’s elementary school nightmares.

In addition to these young performers, this “Story” boasts seven more singers/dancers ranging from 3rd to 6th graders. From the busy opening to the grand finale, they are a major part of the production numbers, and “A Christmas Story” has many! Throughout they sing, dance and inhabit many characters with a confidence many adult actors would envy. All, according to Michaels, are participants in the theater’s Wagon Wheel Jr. program, and it shows!

The extremely mobile set designed by Michael Higgins requires large set pieces to come and go frequently and as swiftly and silently as possible. A Christmas Story, The Musical Wagon Wheel Theatre Warsaw INTo the credit of the movers and shakers, it is never a distraction.

As always, the excellent orchestra led by musical director Thomas Stirling does well with a score that is unfamiliar but thoroughly enjoyable. Stephen B. Hollenbeck’s costumes, circa the 1940s, recreate the colors and shapes of the gentler time recalled by this holiday memory.

If you are looking for one holiday show for this year, I definitely put this production of “A Christmas Story, The Musical” at the top of the list. A word to the wise: Several of the public performances already are sold out.

“A CHRISTMAS STORY, THE MUSICAL” plays weekends through Dec. 21 in the Wagon Wheel Theatre, 2515 E. Center Street, Warsaw. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.org

Berlin Melodies Shine In Holiday Musical

In 1940, composer Irving Berlin put words to a melody that had been in his head since 1935. It became part of  the all-Berlin score of a Paramount musical titled “Holiday Inn.” Sung by one of the film’s stars Bing Crosby, it was not the tune all thought would be the breakout hit.

How wrong they were.

Not only was the film a huge success, “White Christmas” (and Crosby’s recording) became the best-selling single of all time, and lead to yet another film and then to a theatrical musical of the same name.

The last, which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Theatre, promises to join “A Christmas Carol,” “It’s A Wonderful Life”, “Miracle on 34th Street” and a myriad of other seasonal productions as a Christmas regular.

White Christmas  Sotyh Benf (IN)  Civic TheatreLike most other film-to-stage musicals, a number of “not in the movie” songs (happily all by Berlin) have been added  and minor characters have been expanded, not always for the best.

The film’s already thin plotline has been stretched to the max to make room for non-Christmasy numbers like “Blue Skies,” “I Love A Piano” and “How Deep Is The Ocean.”

Under the direction of Jewel Abram-Copenhaver, a major plus in the SBCT production is principals who display voices that make ballad-listening very pleasant.

Chief among these is Sean Leyes, who seems to be every area community theater’s choice for leading baritone. White Christmas South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreAs Bob Wallace, the vocal half of the team of Wallace and Davis (the other half is William Heckaman as funny man Phil Davis), he handles the slow songs easily. His eventual love interest is Betty Haynes, played by Natalie MacRae, who displays a warm, clear voice on her share of the show’s loveliest ballads.

Heckaman takes care of the requisite dancing along with Allison Jean Jones as Betty’s sister/show biz partner, Judy Haynes. The duo acquits themselves admirably in “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing” and “I Love A Piano.”  A vocal quintet backs them in the former and the dance ensemble adds to the fun in the latter, a pull-out-all-the-stops production number led by a talented tap dancing Jones.

SBCT veteran Gary Oesch delivers an appreciably low-keyed characterization as the “Old Man,” retired General Henry Waverly, the reason for the holiday hoopla. His speech recognizing veterans and active military in the audience is heartfelt and moving.

Supporting the general are his former sergeant Martha Watson (Anna Thompson) and his granddaughter Susan (Lucy Barron), both of whom take their turns in the spotlight via “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”

One jarring note is blasted too frequently by the troupe stage manager who mistakes bellowing for the way to get things done.

White Christmas  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreAfter a bit of “after you, no after you” with the chorus in the opening number, the on-stage orchestra did well with the familiar score.

The mostly-singing, some-dancing chorus is exactly as good as non-dancing singers are expected to be both with the frequent changes of costumes and characters and Callie Lorenz’ choreography.

The use of projections designed by SBCT artistic director Mark Abram-Copenhaver establish the full-stage scenes effectively, especially on the “Snow” train to Vermont — although how Bob fails to realize he’s not en route to Florida is another mystery in a script that contains quite a few.

Costumer Donald Eugene Willman has assembled a number of colorfully appropriate outfits for both principals and chorus and those familiar with the movie won’t be disappointed by the final definitely-Christmas tableau which, of course, contains a title-tune sing-along.

“WHITE CHRISTMAS” plays through Dec.21 in the Wilson Theatre, 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574)234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.